Robot 6

White duck’s burden?: Race in Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes”

Fantagraphics’ announced Complete Carl Barks Disney Library, which recently began publication with Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes” is a godsend of a comics project.

The publisher does the heavy-lifting of finding, formatting and even contextualizing the work of one of comics’ undisputed (and, in some way, unrivaled) masters and putting it all together in an easy to find and read source, making Barks’ influential work available to casual readers to either easily finally find out why The Good Duck Artist has the reputation he has, or to discover his work for the first time.

Before cracking the cover, I will admit there was one aspect I was a little leery about. Because so many of Barks’ stories dealt with the Ducks visiting exotic lands, because the stories in this collection were produced between 1948 and 1949 and because Disney doesn’t exactly have the most sterling reputation when it comes to representing diverse nationalities or ethnicities, I was sort of concerned about what the lily-white ducks would be faced with when they journeyed to South America or Africa. Or, more precisely, how Barks would present what they would be faced with.

Reading Will Eisner’s Spirit comics and being confronted by his Ebony White or Osama Tezuka’s work and seeing the various racial stereotypes that pop up in it can be a bit like finding a fly in your soup—by biting down on it. It’s great stuff, but there’s that extremely unpleasant moment you could have done without, you know?  (Also, while I haven’t read it, it’s my understanding that Tintin may have had at least one less than politically correct adventure in the Congo).

Nevertheless, I was happy to see that Fantagraphics didn’t edit Barks’ work to make it less offensive—they didn’t go the route Papercutz went with Peyo’s Les Schtroumpfs Noirs, which became The Purple Smurfs—and present Barks’ work cultural warts and all.

And I was happier still that it wasn’t that bad. Certainly some of the depictions would seem hideously if drawn in 2011, but there Barks treats his subjects of color with a decent amount of respect, and, on a spectrum of either Great Old Cartoonists Drawing Racial Stereotypes or even Racial Stereotypes in Disney Media, the stories in this collection fare fairly well, more Aladdin than Song of The South or Dumbo.

The title story sends Donald and his nephews to Peru in search of square eggs, where the locals all consider the ducks a little crazy, and react to their quest by either making fun of them or trying to swindle them.

The eggs come from the lost valley of Plain Awful, a square city where everything, including the people, are more square than they are round. They are such a fantastic people, invented from whole cloth, that it’s hard to find offense in their portrayal. In design they are as cartoony as the cartoon ducks, and their culture is…peculiar. They speak exclusively in the accent they learned from their last visitor, in 1868 “Professah Rhutt Betlah, frum th’ Bummin’ham school of English.”

In “Race to the South Seas,” Donald and the nephews race lucky cousin Gladstone Gander to rescue Uncle Scrooge, whose boat reportedly sunk in the area (not necessarily out of goodwill, but to make sure they are treated good in Scrooge’s will).

Two island cultures are met in this story. The first is that of Coca Bola, a people legendary for their hospitality—to the point they allow a guest to eat every single piece of food they have, save their coconuts. Barks draws them as real people, which is actually a bit disturbing in the world of ducks and dogs (the Peruvians he drew also looked like real people, but they had dog-noses to separate them from humans). In addition to a more-or-less representational depiction, they get the better of Donald. Having learned the errors of their generous ways by Gladstone, they now great visiting white ducks with clubs instead of platters of food.

The members of the other island culture is referred to as “cannibals” by Donald, and they throw spears, have bones through their noses, worship spats and talk like this: “Ola Eela Booka Mooka Bocko Mucka!” Perhaps the main saving grace here is that Barks again draws them as real people…again, more real than the anthropomorphic animal characters that populate the Disney comics world.

The final, and most troubling, of the stories included here that deal with culture clash is “Voodoo Hoodoo,” the title of which alone is enough to clue a reader in on where it might be going.

The story opens with a scene of Donald walking around what is apparently the “black” neighborhood of Duckburg, with all of the various dog characters colored dark brown. They are all talking about a zombie being sighted in town (Remember, this is 1949, so it’s an I Walked with a Zombie zombie, not a Night of the Living Dead zombie).

After a few panels, Donald stops and asks a passerby he apparently knows what all this zombie talk is about. In the story notes at the end of the collection, Jared Gardner writes that this is the “first character in Duckburg coded explicitly as African American.”

Writes Gardner:

Bop-Bop displays the contradictions at the heart of Barks’ engagement with the zombie story. On one hand, Bop-Bop epitomizes the racist stereotypes of the day: he is drawn with exaggerated lips and speaks in an exaggerated “negro” dialect straight out of the minstrel tradition (and most immediately familiar to readers in 1949 from the popular weekly radio series Amos ‘n’ Andy). On the other hand, he is also the character Donald turns to for the inside information on zombies, suggesting his access to a body of knowledge not at the disposal of the rest of the community who are baffled by the sudden appearance of a zombie in their midst.

The zombie himself is Bombie, who is also drawn according to racist stereotypes: Big ears, big lips, and with a pierced nose. Bombie has traveled to Duckburg to present Donald with a cursed voodoo doll and then, mission accomplished, he just sort of stands around, until the nephews decide to adopt him and help return him to his African homeland.

Bombie was created by the voodoo witchdoctor Foola Zoola, who is another horrible stereotype, as is his tribe. The only positive thing that can be said about Barks portrayal of Africans in this story is that Foola Zoola and company are at least given a good reason for their vengeful actions:To avenge the loss of their land and their exploitation at the hands of the greedy American imperialist Scrooge, Foola Zoola sent Bombie after him with the voodoo doll, but Bombie gave it to Donald instead, as Donald resembled Scrooge at the time Scrooge was in Africa.

Now, “it could have been much worse” is a terrible defense of racist stereotypes, not much better than, “that was a different time.” But it is somewhat comforting to know that such choices come from ignorance instead of a well-informed choice (Barks didn’t travel to Africa to draw that story, and his ability to research would have been limited to what he saw in Hollywood movies or in other cartoons and comics).

It’s more comforting still to see Barks struggling with an issue like imperialism and exploitation in the midst of a silly little adventure story. The art in “Voodoo Hoodoo,” much more so than in the other stories involving native cultures, may have included some unequivocally racist imagery, but at least the story assigns evil behavior degrees, and different exponents.

The villain of the first page turns out to be the most innocent character in the story. His boss is the real villain. But then, that villain was simply trying to reclaim what was rightfully his from the villain that stole it from him.

That moral ambiguity doesn’t forgive the drawings, of course, but I’ll take what I can get here.

And of the above stories mentioned, that’s only three of the four long-form adventure stories in this collection, which also includes nine 10-page short stories and seven one-page gags, as well as a biographical introduction and the aforementioned story notes. They account for but a small part of a great big book full great big comics from a great big talent.

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15 Comments

I found the portrayals in “Lost in the Andes” more problematic than the essays at the back portrayed them. The South Americans in the title story all speak with the same stereotyped “chico” accent, and the readiness with which they attempt to hoodwink the ducks is rather predatory. The second group of islanders in the boat race story, while not the cannibals Donald initially assumes them to be (and shame on him), are in fact all Scrooge’s servants, who’s set himself up as a colonial master on their little island. Look up there; one of them is even calling Scrooge “massa.” You can’t tell me that’s right.

And Voodoo Hoodoo has a whole host of problems, including Bop-Bop. Aside from his comical accent and superstition (both well-covered in the lore of black stereotyping), his possession of “secret knowledge”, coming from a white cartoonist, is little more than orientalism directed at Africans (better neologists than me can think up a word for it; the point is, it’s a form of patronization). I love Barks, in spite of the problems of these stories, but I’m disappointed at the apologism found in the backmatter.

Ah,
Thank you Michael for that comment. Reading the backmatter on these stories were more troubling for me than the stories themselves…

I have to ask–why is “it was a different time” not an acceptable explanation for these sort of stereotypes? It *was* a different time, and this stereotyping was used in much of the humor of the day. Why can we not just be glad we’ve learned to view people in better ways in the ensuing years, recognize what is and is not inappropriate in these stories, and move on?

Also, there are plenty of foolish or bungling or greedy or selfish “white” characters in Barks’ stories, yet no one ever seems to have a problem with them. I’ve often found it strange that some individuals are quick to condemn racial stereotypes about some groups of people, and yet have no problem with others.

Patrick Hamilton

January 27, 2012 at 5:33 am

Bop-Bop’s stuttering in his response can be read as fear, which plays into stereotypes of blacks as superstitious and/or cowardly. The same stereotype can be seen in Whitewash Jones of Young Allies.

As for the “different time” argument, I would refer people to Chinua Achebe’s discussion of Heart of Darkness where he talks about how (to paraphrase) if we treat texts like Conrad’s as “classics” and “masterpieces” of Western literature without problematizing the text’s racist depictions, then we’ve also uncritically canonized that racism. A similar idea may be applicable here: to celebrate Barks (or Eisner, etc.) as a classic comics creator without dealing with their stereotypical depictions is implicitly say that those don’t detract from their work in any way and/or are an unproblematic aspect of his/their masterpieces.

Aladdin is pretty racist. I wouldn’t hold it up as an example of Disney handling another culture well.

I believe on some Looney Tunes DVDs they have Whoopi Goldberg discuss the racism in the early cartoons. I think this is a good idea for collections of older material; the racism should be acknowledged and discussed, but not censored.

I concur– I also found the back matter far more troubling than the actual material. I think by now everyone knows that material from the period (and early, let us not forget the problematic early Mickey Mouse strips also recently collected by Fantagraphics) is going to include a lot of stereotyping material and otherization… The suggestions of the back matter, which attempt to lose the problematic material in a lot of drawn out double talk, almost does it a disservice…

I find this kind of material to be mostly harmless, particularly given its archival quality, but I’m not part of the minority groups depicted herein. Everyone must judge for themselves.

What I think the backmatter’s quality issues speak to more than anything is the on-going hole that has yet to be filled by the loss of Bill Blackbeard. Now there was a man!

A great essay about this is How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. Mass comunication and colonialism

I would always prefer to see things like this uncensored. I’m smart enough to understand that while it was offensive, it was largely never untended to be. I’m faaaaaar more forgiving of stereotype by ignorance than censoring art to avoid conflict with a PC-mindset that is always looking for reasons to be offended by everything.

Eisner”s Ebony is a great example of ignorance. He himself had stated that he had no real exposure to blacks when he created the character, and once he ate and slept next to them every day in the war, he understood his ignorance and tried to change the character when he came back.

Even stuff like Amos & Andy STILL gets a bad rap, especially the TV show, which CBS is terrified to release on DVD to this day. The irony is that black comedians like Redd Foxx defended the show, which was the first show in TV history with an all-black cast, including black doctors, black lawyers, black businessmen and other black characters in”‘normal” everyday roles, where other TV shows would largely shuffle off their black cast into the kitchen as comic relief for the white folk for another decade. He would also credit the show with his own desire to go into show biz. Watching the show in comparison to modern fare like Family Matters, and not only is the show NOT offensive, it’s amazingly witty to this day.

If we actually sit back and study our past and stop looking for an excuse to be offended by it, we might be surprised how much we all start getting along.

got to admit just seeing those pictures can now see why now a days that stuff is consider a little racial since it was made in the forties and fifties . and glad fangraphics is willing to let fans see the material uncensored . let people see what carl idea back then of african americans in the donald duck stories. if nothing else a little history lesson for new readers finding carls disney work for the first time.

I must agree with Rob here – the “it was a different time” argument IS a valid one, provided there’s no reason to believe the author was a militant racist but simply “ignorant” (as in “unaware”) of how a given culture actually was. Sure, some things will still be offensive from our point of view and it is important to admit it, but it is also important to keep in mind the difference between an involuntary offense and a deliberate attack aimed at, let’s say, claiming the alleged inferiority of one group.

I think it’d be extremely unfair to put an author – “guilty” of having drawn an African man with an unusal set of big lips – together with people who supported slavery or didn’t consider non-caucasians fully human. Calling “racist” an otherwise non-racist author (or their work) because they depicted all Mexicans as wearing sombreros in an age when the author’s countrymen generally didn’t have much knowledge of Mexico (or the means or reasons to expand said knowledge), doesn’t really make that author justice (and raises the question “which term shall we then use for actually, explicitly and proud-to-be racist authors?”).

Some months ago I was visiting a bookshop in Milan, Italy, and stumbled into a ’60s or ’70s book about African american authors. It was clearly a book aimed at letting the Italian audience know about African american literature and culture of the time, and was in no way condescending; and yet, the word used to refer to black people and culture is one largely avoided nowadays in Italy, as it is the equivalent of the infamous “N-word”.
That’s today though; over time there’s been a shift in meaning, as back when the book was written the word could be translated as “Negro” (the way I’ve seen it used in Booker T. Washington’s “Up from slavery”), and was a slur only when explicitly intended as such (as much as “Jew” isn’t a slur but can be uttered as such by someone who hates Jews).

LEADERS DESSLOK

January 30, 2012 at 7:25 am

I have never subscribed to the notion that being concerned about ethnic\racial stereotypes is some-how “politically correct”. To me the contempt some people express for PC quite often ends up sounding like “I wish those ‘minor-ro-rities and liberals’ would just shut-up!” In other words, they are upset over having bigotry addressed while ignoring it within themselves!

In fact, I am much more concerned about TODAY’S stereotypes than I am with Pre-60s material: For example, the new Ultimate Spider-Man was described as a “multi-racial” character because he is part African and part Latino– the problem with that as such, is when you’re from the Carribean or most of South America, that’s a given because the Latin Family is mixed to begin with; a mixture of Native-American, European,and African strains. Although there are “class” issues along Colonial-ethnic lines in certain countries (like Brazil) in general, there is no “race” problem akin to that of the United States even though someone from the US might mis-interpret the very real Class issues as such. In short, Miles Morales should have properly been described as the first “Multi-Ethinic” super-hero. Being a “minority” doesn’t mean that someone belongs to another “race” because that word was often used as a code word for something “other” or less than human which actually meant not “White”!

Asians are sometimes referred to as the “model minority” because they don’t “make trouble”. In what manner? Crime? But some criminals do commit horrible acts of theft and violence and yes, some are Asian. Asian women are “compliant and docile”? I guess that gives non-Asian men the right to abuse them or show them no respect? Example: I once read a fanzine that somehow saw nothing wrong with describing an Asian actress as a piece of “yellow a–” or “rice”. I’m sorry but there is just too much evidence which reveals that today, in 2012, there are STILL far too many bigots among us so “political correctness” is, unfortunately, a necessary arrow in the quiver in the battle for social justice! I blame much of the existing prejudice on lousy parenting and lazy, so-called “religious leaders” but that’s another subject.

As this relates to the reprinting of material produced in relatively, less-enlightened times, I think publishers should go the route Warner Bros. took when they re-leased the classic Fleischer POPEYE cartoons: just insert a very visible disclaimer saying why they are re-printing the material un-edited and that they in no way condone some of the stereo-types depicted therein. Another “arrow” but one that is sorely needed.

For me, historical books need to be as presented, warts and all.

I largely agree with the author. I ordered it and was thinking about giving it to my 6-year-old African-American nephew. I read it first, and decided to hold off due to the racist content. I didn’t think it was as bad as I thought it would be and I think it could be given to a kid with the background that it was written from a different time, etc. I think he’ll be ready for that in 3-4 years.

I agree with everyone who says that the work should be presented as it was originally released, uncensored, but explained. The issue of racism should not be ignored any more than it should be covered up. Its history and as such it should be explained with an eye toward understanding it, while there are people who can understand it and speak of it with any knowledge than to just ignore it forever and let future generations try to make out what was going on in these comics.

I love Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics, and I don’t think Carl Barks was racist but his depictions of non-white characters yes, if not racist then racially insensitive. But the man was a product of his time, and while I don’t like the depictions it is only a small part, albeit important, of a greater work.

I still love his stuff and I can’t wait to get this book, but I’d rather read modern criticisms and explanations of the work than having the artist’s work either hidden away forever, or redone by others to make it more palatable to a modern audience.

Modern day writers and artist have no excuse though.

Let me try to understand. All the drawings of non-caucasion characters and their dialog is problematic and/or offensive but caucasions drawn with equally odd physical characteristics isn’t? And what are the ducks supposed to represent? Their feathers are white. Should we be up in arms because white folks are now drawn with feathers and beaks? Or is it just those images whose line drawings are coded to read as human? Everyone should try to grow up just a little and stop trying to prove how morally superior they are to people in the past and/or those of us who didn’t rush to point out all the evils of the past. Get a grip.

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